Light clarifies and illuminates, uplifts and reveals. As it does all these things, it leads us, as the Star of Bethlehem led the Magi to the Christ Child on the first Epiphany, to God. Light ultimately leads to love.
Dante Alighieri opens the Paradiso segment of his Divine Comedy by proclaiming that God is a glorious light that sends itself out into the universe and is received and reflected by all beings in accordance with their dignity: “La gloria di colui che tutto move/ per l'universo penetra, e risplende/ in una parte più e meno in altrove” (“The glory of the One who moves all things penetrates the universe and reverberates [re-glows] more in one part and less in another”). For Dante, God's light penetrates to the essence of things and their responses are not mere surface reflections, but a re-glowing that emanates from the very core of their being.
Further in the Paradiso (Canto XXXI), he returns to his opening theme and states that “la luce divina è penetrante per l'universo secondo ch'è degno” (“the light of God penetrates the universe according to the dignity of each part”). God bathes the world with his glorious light and each being absorbs and recasts it on the basis of its own intrinsic capacity to do so. One sees the glory of God, therefore, more clearly in the saint than in the sinner — and in man more than in beast.
Echoing Dante's view, Nicolas Caussin, a Jesuit preacher and moralist of the 17th century, wrote: “We should render thanks to God for having produced temporal light, which is the smile of heaven and the joy of the world, spreading it like a cloth of gold over the face of the air and earth, and lighting it as a torch, by which we may behold his works.” Similarly, the 18th-century Scottish poet James Thomson sang praises to light for brightening our life and allowing us to appreciate God's artistry: “Light! Nature's resplendent robe; without whose vesting beauty all were in gloom.”
Patches of God-light, to borrow C.S. Lewis' expression, allow us to sense God's presence in the material order. St. Bonaventure claimed that, among all the things in the universe, that which most clearly resembles God is light (“Lux inter omnia corporalia maxime assimilatur luci aeternae”).
We may describe our spiritual journey as one that leads from created light to the uncreated Light, from light that is symbolic and transitory to the Light that is non-symbolic and everlasting. One way of describing this journey is to see light as levity; another is to see light as revealing.
Light as Levity
Levity is lightness that reverses the force of gravity. It is the natural antidote to the heaviness of the world. It is the buoyancy of mirth that lifts the spirit and elevates it to the source of all lightness, which is God.
“Angels can fly,” said G.K. Chesterton, “because they can take themselves lightly.” Levity gives wings to the spirit. Lightheartedness is a most infectious virtue because we all want to escape the dreary hold that gravity has on us. The whole point of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was to get Ebenezer Scrooge to lighten up. When Scrooge was finally delivered from the burden of his ponderous ego, he became irrepressible in his lightheartedness: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy.”
“A light heart lives long,” Shakespeare declared. And why should it not! We were born for lofty things. Our hearts should be light because our hopes are high. It is said that God loves a cheerful giver. The maxim should be self-evident. Cheerfulness is the comportment of a lighthearted soul, one that enjoys the delightful sense that he is moving in the direction of his destiny.
We put the whole cosmos in perspective during the Mass when we set lights on the altar to honor the Invisible Light.
Light as Revealing
“In your light we see light,” the Psalmist writes (36:9). There would be no earthly light if it were not for the divine Light. We see light and the things that light illuminates. But, more importantly, we are led by our experiences of light to a realization of the supreme author of light. Light gives us knowledge, but it points to something above knowledge: a sense of the transcendent God, the Light above light. To see the light without sensing the Light is to be spiritually blind. God showers us in his eternal light so that we may see and understand all things.
T.S. Eliot praises God who is “Light Invisible … Too bright for mortal vision.” We put the whole cosmos in perspective during the Mass when we set little lights on the altar to honor the Invisible Light. Even the darkness can remind us of the forthcoming light, the very light that draws our souls toward the Light Invisible.
The Greek words lugé (darkness) and luké (daybreak) are etymologically related. From lugé we get the word “lugubrious,” meaning “doleful” or “mournful.” From luké we get “lucent” or “lucid,” meaning “shining” or “luminous.” Darkness anticipates the dawn because in some way it bears light. It may be darkest before the dawn, but that period of darkness is also one of hope, a prelude to daybreak in which lugé is about to give way to luké, just as the dark days of Advent prepare us for the arrival of Christmas.
Light as Love
When John Henry Cardinal Newman was journeying home to England from Italy in 1832, he became deliriously ill. Convinced that death was hovering near, he gave final instructions to his Italian servant. But then, just as darkness precedes the dawn, he uttered these unexpected words: “I shall not die, I shall not die, for I have not sinned against the light. … God has still a work for me to do.”
With difficulty, he reached Palermo. He crossed the Mediterranean, then France, and was sailing home when his vessel was becalmed in the Straits of Bonifaccio. While walking the deck and gazing up at the darkening sky, he composed his most celebrated poem, “Lead, Kindly Light.” The first stanza is an eloquent testimony to a faith that can see light in the midst of darkness: “Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom/Lead Thou me on!/The night is dark, and I am far from home/Lead Thou me on!”
Newman's use of the adjective “kindly” is of particular significance. The divine light is not only a source of illumination, but also one of love. Lucifer, whose name means “light-bearer,” has knowledge, but lacks love. Newman is reminding us that the God of light is also the God of love. To separate love from light is to create hell.
St. John the Evangelist states repeatedly that Christ brings the true light into the world: “I am the light of the world. He who follows me does not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (8:12); “As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world” (9:5); “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light” (12:36); “I have come a light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in the darkness” (12:46). “God is light,” he writes (1 John 1:15) and “God is love” (1 John 4:16).
In the final analysis, as St. Paul tells us, “light and darkness have nothing in common” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Light can do two things: Positively, it can illuminate; negatively, it can dispel the darkness. Darkness, on the other hand, is absolutely powerless: Positively, it cannot do anything; negatively, it cannot dispel the light. Light and darkness are not moral alternatives that exist on the same metaphysical plane. Darkness is the absolute privation of light and also the absolute privation of love. It is part of wisdom to know this; it is another part of wisdom to live by it. And one returns to the light through love.
Wisdom is a light that illumines other lights. It allows us to be led from one light to another. God wants us to be wise without ignoring his creation. We are pilgrims traveling along a road of lesser lights, each serving and guiding. None are final. Only the non-symbolic, invisible and everlasting Light will completely fill our souls. Wisdom, then, is a light that bids us to settle for nothing less than the Ultimate. At the end of our journey, we find that Light is inseparable from Love.
Dante closes his Paradiso by adding to God's identity as Light, which opened the poem, his identity as Love: “the Love that moves the sun and the stars” (“l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle”).
Donald DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.